With Belgium on the verge of collapse, the quaint city of Ghent has declared its independence from Flanders.
What began as a regular lazy Sunday in picturesque Ghent climaxed with the university city and one-time industrial centre declaring its unilateral independence and reverting, after some four centuries, to its ancient status of city-state – perhaps hoping to recapture its past glories, when Ghent was the largest city in Europe after Paris, and the first on the continent to industrialise in the middle ages.
The rebel Nieuw-Gentse Alliantie, or New Ghent Alliance, marked independence in true Ghent style with hours of revelry on one of the city's main medieval squares. The musical extravaganza was interrupted temporarily at 6pm when the assembled citizens – 5,000, according to police sources, at least 8,000, according to the NGA – marched off to hear the declaration of independence delivered by NGA's ideological father, Edmond Cocquyt, from the balcony of one of the city's main theatres.
Jan Hoet, the former curator of Ghent's contemporary arts museum, SMAK, was crowned emperor of the city state. In a show of defiance and strength, the anointed leader wasted no time in showing who was boss and warned Belgium's King Albert II that Ghent had new management: “Now there is an emperor, we no longer need a king,” Kaiser Jan I told Flemish television news.
The speed with which the NGA, which was established only in January, has achieved its declared goal has sent shockwaves across the country. The secret behind their success may stem from the concern felt by many of Ghent's citizens towards the political crisis that has gripped their country since last summer.
Some have questioned whether Ghent is large enough to make a viable country. According to the NGA, there are 23 members of the United Nations with fewer inhabitants than the city. “If Monaco, with only 32,000 inhabitants… is the most prosperous state in the world, then Greater Ghent, with 302,000 inhabitants, has nothing to fear,” claims the separatist party.
NGA has also played the populist card, heaping blame on a particular minority group which has been immigrating to Ghent in increasing numbers over the past 40 years: people from the neighbouring province of West Flanders.
“We have nothing against West Flemings or the West Flemish identity in itself,” insisted NGA president Jan Beke. “It's just there has been far too much migration from West Flanders… They come here and steal our houses and jobs.”
Despite Beke's declarations of tolerance, the NGA accuses West Flemings of bringing their alien farmers' ways to Ghent, of failing to “integrate” properly and of speaking a dialect which no one can understand. The party has demanded that West Flemings take compulsory language and integration courses to learn the ways of the city, or face deportation.
A troubling NGA video emerged some weeks ago in which citizens' patrols, or vigilante groups, roam the streets of Ghent barring West Flemings from entering pubs and clubs, while praising the “good” immigrants from foreign lands who make the effort to live as good “Gentenaars”. In order perhaps to make life easier for future vigilantes, the NGA has also floated plans to force West Flemings to wear a headscarf.
Having originally been drawn to live in Ghent for its tolerance and progressiveness, this weekend's events have left me bewildered and confused. I called a friend of mine who is trapped in a no man's land between West Flanders and Ghent to make sure he was all right.
“Because I live near the border with West Flanders, I am caught in the middle of this confrontation – I am being demonised by both sides. I want this to stop,” Erwin pleaded. “In Flanders, it's not just about regionalism – every town and village seems to have its own identity.”
I went out on to the city's streets to gauge the public mood. Although I am normally in Brussels on weekdays, I gleaned that Ghent had fallen back into a more or less normal routine, despite the tumultuous events: students and office workers having lunch by the canals and river, people of all ages and walks of life enjoying a drink on sunny cafe terraces …
I approached a group of young people sitting on a bench by the river enjoying the lunchtime sun. One young man, who wished not to be identified, claimed to be close to the NGA's top brass. He told me, his spirits high: “After the independence party, everyone has a hangover.” Somewhat chillingly, he described the declaration of independence as merely a “foretaste of things to come”.
Sara, who is studying at Ghent University to become a teacher, admitted to me that she was from West Flanders. I asked her discreetly whether she felt threatened by Ghent's independence. “No, I don't feel threatened here, but then most of my class are from West Flanders. As a West Fleming, I find life here in Ghent good.”
I asked her what she thought of NGA's plans to force West Flemings to take integration and language courses. “I don't know how we're supposed to integrate – we already are integrated,” was her baffled response. “But if our language is so confusing, then why not have language courses?” she laughed.
A group of out-of-town shoppers had no idea that Ghent had become independent and had noticed nothing out of the ordinary. “An independent Ghent is a bad idea,” concluded Erika, who comes from Brussels and has made Ghent her home.
The idea of an independent Ghent is certainly bad, but this spoof proved to be a great idea, both entertaining and educational. The NGA is, if you have not guessed it already, a fictional party. Its name is a parody of the NVA, a militant Flemish nationalist party, and its party platform is a satirical mix of Flemish nationalism and far-right xenophobia.
The organisers of the stunt said that they hoped that their shock therapy approach would help Flemings become better aware of their situation through “a social experiment to show what happens when you systematically turn people against a particular group”.
In Flanders, the far right and Flemish nationalists have singled out two groups of people to direct their ire at: Belgian citizens from Wallonia in the poorer south of the country and ethnic minorities. There is growing unease among supporters of the Belgian state that the country is slowly heading towards disintegration, particularly as the governmental crisis which followed the June 2007 general elections has still not been satisfactorily resolved.
Even though the country finally got a new government nine months later, the cracks have not been shored over and observes fear that Flemish demands for and Walloon resistance to greater regional autonomy could cause the government to collapse.
“We've achieved our goal and got our message across,” said Jan Beke, one of the brains behind the stunt who also posed as the NGA's president. “All the newspapers and TV stations have given us a lot of attention.”
The socialist mayor of Ghent Daniël Termont, who was in on the joke, said on a TV debating programme: “This is a very smart stunt which holds up a mirror to Flanders. Replace Ghent with Flanders and West Flemings with immigrants or Walloons and you have the perfect reflection of the current situation.”
In fact, so convincing was the spoof that the mayor and the NGA received a spate of queries and complaints from concerned citizens which forced them to come clean, 10 days before the declaration of independence, and admit that their weeks-long campaign was a practical joke.
On Monday evening, Ghent returned to the fold of a grateful nation.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 1 April 2008.